These ordinary Americans stood up to big corporations in 2017

Is the customer always right?

Sometimes the answer depends on whether he or she is on social media. Though experts are divided on whether social media is an effective tool for customer complaints, there were five moments in 2017 where routine interactions between companies and their customers or the issues they raised were catapulted into the worldwide spotlight.

Of course, some people are a lesson in what not to do. In an attempt to get a free vacation with his credit card points, Chris Mixter, a 39-year-old IT consultant from Virginia, decided to buy a new car for $45,000 with his credit card.

That’s usually a big red flag, especially if there’s no money in a savings account to immediately pay that expense off. Reward points, even for a trip, are not worth it. Americans already have a lot of credit card — a record $1 trillion as of June. Mixter did not have the cash to pay off the card right away, and though he had experience racking up reward points, his biggest purchase with a card in the past was a refrigerator.

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Gaming your credit-card rewards is a favorite pastime of many Americans, but Mixter had to clear his debt fast before racking up punitive interest rate on his purchase. He is a cautionary tale for Americans in 2018 who are racking up record amounts of post-recession personal debt.

Some consumers had an “ah-ha!” moment, while others had an “oh-no!” moment. Whether they did something nice, clever or stood up for their rights, these Americans had an impact.

—Leslie Albrecht and Alessandra Malito

MarketWatch’s personal finance team chose their favorite moments:

The passenger dragged off the United flight

The removal of David Dao from a United Airlines flight symbolized the frayed relationship between airlines and customers. He later settled with the airline for an undisclosed sum.

The forcible removal of David Dao from an overbooked United Airlines UAL, -0.34%  flight in April was a public relations disaster that seemed to symbolize the increasingly frayed relationship between airlines and their customers. Dao, a 69-year-old doctor from Kentucky, was bloodied in the incident, and United’s stock price took a hit, too. Though airlines are within their rights to remove paying passengers, Dao threatened to sue and reached an undisclosed, but “amicable,” monetary settlement with United.

Also see: Chrissy Teigen’s ‘flight to nowhere’ is the perfect end to a difficult year for air travelers

The company apologized and the two Chicago airport security officers who dragged Dao off the plane were fired. The incident resulted in changes for much of the flying public. United overhauled its policies on overbooked flights, and bumped passengers can now collect up to $10,000. Other major carriers, including Delta DAL, -0.55%  and American AAL, -0.85% followed suit.

—Leslie Albrecht

The high school student with taste for chicken nuggets

Companies want to avoid PR disasters, but also spot opportunities for good press: In May, a single tweet garnered internet fame and a large amount of fast food.

In May, a Nevada teen who tweeted a seemingly casual question at Wendy’s WEN — “Yo @Wendys how many retweets for a year of free chicken nuggets?” — went on to make Twitter TWTR, -0.12%  history and showed that a single customer and a single tweet can, well, garner internet fame and a large amount of fast food. Carter Wilkerson’s simple request for a year’s supply of nuggets was retweeted more than 18 million times, breaking a Twitter record previously held by Ellen DeGeneres.

The nuggets campaign became a prime example of how no customer interaction is too small to ignore. It also shows that company social media teams are becoming more proficient at spotting opportunities to answer customer service questions, engage with loyal followers, while serving themselves some free publicity at the same time.

—Leslie Albrecht

All the people who took on Equifax over its mandatory arbitration clause

After the data breach at Equifax in April, consumers expressed their outrage on social media over the company’s mandatory arbitration clause.

When a data breach in September at the credit agency Equifax EFX, +0.67%  impacted more than 145 million U.S. adults, those consumers weren’t happy. And they let Equifax know it.

Among their complaints: A credit-monitoring service that Equifax offered for free after the breach appeared to include a clause that would prohibit consumers from suing the company in the future, if they enrolled in the TrustedID Premier monitoring service. “Neither you nor we consent or agree to any arbitration on a class or representative basis,” the contract said. Consumers expressed their outrage on social media: “This ‘complimentary service’ also includes a class action waiver,” one consumer said on Twitter. “Unbelievable.”

Shortly after, Equifax updated its website to tell consumers they would, in fact, be allowed to sue if they wished. The company also made its credit-monitoring service free for life, starting in 2018, instead of just for one year.

Also see: Why consumers should care about the dismantling of class-action lawsuits

The Equifax incident made up only part of the debate about these types of clauses in consumer contracts, which are known as “mandatory arbitration clauses.” When consumers sign contracts that include these clauses, the companies prohibit them from suing, and instead require a settlement out of court, through arbiters.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau developed a proposed law over the past five years to ban those clauses, but the Senate and House both voted that proposed law down this year. Last November, President Trump made it official, by signing a resolution that effectively killed the CFPB’s proposed law. Mandatory arbitration clauses remain legal. But, thanks in part to those who stood up to Equifax, people know they can publicly force a company to address issues they believe put consumers at a disadvantage.

—Maria LaMagna

The Reddit user who discovered Apple slows down older iPhones

After a savvy iPhone user noticed his slow battery, Apple admitted that it installed software that reduced the performance of older iPhone models to prevent unexpected shutdowns.

On Dec. 21, Reddit user TeckFire had noticed something peculiar about his iPhone, and posted about it to the social media website’s iPhone board. “My iPhone 6S has been very slow these past few weeks, and even after updating multiple times, it was still slow,” TeckFire wrote. “Couldn’t figure out why, but just thought that iOS 11 was still awful to me. Then I used my brother’s iPhone 6 Plus and his was… faster than mine?” The Reddit user would then discover that replacing his smartphone’s battery made the device run at full speed again — prompting the question, was Apple slowing down its devices on purpose?

As it turns out, the answer was yes. Third-party web developers researched the issue and backed up the Reddit user’s incidental findings. Apple AAPL, +0.02%  later admitted that it installed software that reduced the performance of older iPhone models to prevent unexpected shutdowns as battery life worsened. (Apple did not respond to request for comment.) It was another case of a savvy customer using social media to bring global attention to an issue that could be affecting millions of users.

Read more: Joining a gym in 2018? Here’s why it could save your life

The admission was followed by expected blowback. Some argued that Apple could have been upfront about the change, since it was made to improve customer experience (whether the company succeeded in fulfilling that goal is up for debate.) The tech titan now faces multiple lawsuits, including one class-action suit, over the matter. The result of those lawsuits could be define how much power consumers have to shape the choices made by the companies that create the technology we increasingly rely on.

This incident capped off a year that’s been somewhat rocky as far as consumer sentiment is concerned. Analysts have raised concern that the latest iPhone X may not be flying off the shelves like previous iterations — perhaps a response to the device’s hefty $1,000 price tag. Meanwhile, other consumers have uncovered evidence of faults in the Face ID technology used to safeguard the iPhone X amid growing concerns over the security of biometric technology.

—Jacob Passy

The Trump voter who left a big tip for a D.C. waitress

A Trump voter leaving a $450 tip for a D.C. waitress, saying, ‘Our country will come together as one.’ It was a timely reminder that servers all too often rely heavily on tip.

President Donald Trump’s inauguration in January highlighted deep divides in America — and sparked the White House’s ongoing battle against what it sees as “fake news.” But there was a moment that made many Americans breath a small sigh of relief: A Trump voter leaving a $450 tip for a D.C. waitress. The Trump supporter, a 37-year-old white man from Texas, wrote a note to the waitress, a 25-year-old black woman from Washington, D.C.

That note said in part: “We may come from different cultures and may disagree on certain issues, but if everyone would share their smile and kindness like your beautiful smile, our country will come together as one people,” the note reads. “Not race. Not gender. Just American,” the Washington Post reported.

The 625% tip was one of several big tips that got news coverage this year. Others included tips by former New Kids on the Block star Donny Wahlberg, who trumpeted his big Waffle House tips on Facebook and Instagram. None of these tips led to lasting changes, but the news coverage around them is a reminder that servers all too often rely heavily on tips. They face an uncertain future as the Trump administration considers new tip pooling rules and consumers move from using cash.

—Leslie Albrecht

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